Exploring the nature of good and evil in Ridley Scott’s misunderstood fantasy
That most rapturous, dreamlike and out-of-time of genres, the fantasy film, experienced something of a boom in the 1980s. Thanks to staggering advancements made in the fields of special and visual effects, and boosted by the phenomenal artistic success of 1977’s Star Wars and 1978’s Superman, so much was now possible in regards to creating new, believable and fantastical images onscreen. It led to the demand for, and a wave of, North American and British movies that redefined what was possible to experience in the cinema.
They were everywhere: Excalibur, Flash Gordon, Clash of the Titans (although that film was tied to an earlier, stop-motion/Ray Harryhausen-dominated era), Time Bandits, Dragonslayer, The Beastmaster, Conan the Barbarian and its sequel, The Dark Crystal, Krull, The Company of Wolves, The Neverending Story, Return to Oz, Labyrinth, Willow, Hawk the Slayer (bless it) and of course, the two massive Star Wars sequels… all of these and many more comfortably nestled in the fantasy genre (and more specifically, the kind of fantasy film that explored other, imagined worlds or imagined times), yet they were also all wildly different works in terms of approach, tone and mood. If you were a child growing up in the Eighties (or even in the early Nineties, when these films were still mainstays on television), then some, many or all of the above may have been or still are your nearest and dearest favourites.
Also, because these films were made prior to the common usage of computer-generated effects, much of the strengths of their visuals was conjured through extensive set design, make-up effects, miniatures, prosthetics, and carefully executed cinematography and lighting. As they were, for the most part, genuinely physical and not created after-the-fact (the likes of matte paintings, animation and rotoscoping excepted), these films felt convincing in a vividly tactile way that felt closer to the real thing than ever before. They trod a delicate balance between reality and unreality – it was all imagination, but it really was there on screen, daring us to find the flaws that would break its spell. Of course, not all films in this genre could pull it off – sometimes the monsters looked fake, sometimes the make-up was ropey, sometimes the effects used for, say, aerial combat or aerial travel, looked clunky, and sometimes the films were clumsily executed as a whole, but at the time audiences, especially the younger ones, were captivated.
Ridley Scott’s 1985 epic Legend, which was one of the last of its kind to arrive during this wave of fantasy filmmaking, is not the greatest fantasy film ever made, but it does represent the ambitious summation of the genre’s comeback during this time: it set the bar so high for the amount of immersive detail to be found in its imagined world that nothing after could hope to match it. Essentially, it is absolutely ravishing, and one of the most beautiful-looking films ever made. It was further proof that Scott’s eye for detail, grand visions and world-building was utterly unparalleled, except that instead of the future, Scott now looked to the past, an imagined past, a world not of cities, technology, cars, spacecrafts and electricity, but one of forests, magic, monsters, unicorns and even pure Evil itself.
You’d think after the intense hard work that was put into Blade Runner that Scott would have taken it easy for his next feature, but no – that kind of relatively relaxed approach would have to wait. Instead, he decided to take on the third of that great trinity of otherworldly genres, now that he’d conquered horror and SF: fantasy. Indeed, Scott felt he needed to get the fairy tale in him out of his system so that he could concentrate on the modern world: cue writer William Hjortsberg, probably best known as the author of the brilliant novel Fallen Angel, which would be adapted into the equally brilliant Angel Heart by Alan Parker in 1987. Hjortsberg, enthused by Scott’s desire to deliver a classic fable that would encompass all that was great about the form and which would resonate with audiences in the same way the classics did, went wild. His original script was insanely ambitious, a tale of good versus evil, full of high romance, extraordinary imagery (posies were to sprout from the ground whenever a unicorn walked on it) and adult, even outright sexual themes.
Darkness: The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity.
However, despite Scott, producer Arnon Milchan and pretty much anyone who read the script absolutely loving it, it was essentially unfilmable, so things were inevitably scaled down or changed over a series of revised drafts. What we got in the end was a story that, on the surface, is very simple, yet is also ripe with fascinating themes and rich dialogue. It was, in the words of star Tim Curry, ‘much closer to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the kind of primal, psychological things that disturb children, which fairy tales were actually invented to address, […] there’s some really gritty, dark, bad stuff in there, the same way that there is in life, and the fairy tales were invented to prepare children for the horror they might encounter’.
In another place and another time, young princess Lili (Mia Sara) loves forest boy Jack (Tom Cruise), and he loves her in return. Hoping to impress Lili, Jack takes her to the sanctuary of the most sacred and pure of animals – the unicorn. ‘Nothing is more magical’ than these animals. ‘They express only love and laughter; dark thoughts are unknown to them’, Jack says in hushed awe. It’s the unicorns, and their ‘disgusting goodness’, that Darkness (Tim Curry), brooding in his lair, wants more than anything to destroy, for to possess the horns of such creatures is to see the sun set forever. To set this in motion, he sends his wicked goblin minions out to follow Lili and Jack, who unwittingly lead them to the secret unicorn sanctuary. Ignoring Jack’s pleas to simply look at the unicorns and not approach, Lili beckons one of the unicorns closer, allowing lead goblin Blix to injure him, resulting in both steeds fleeing from their home. Intense winter spreads across the land instantly. The goblins then cut off the horn of one of the unicorns, and Jack, separated from Lili, must join forces with forest elf Honeythorn Gump (The Tin Drum‘s David Bennent in a striking, otherworldly performance), his two goofy dwarf friends Screwball and Brown Tom, and lovesick fairy Oona (who is besotted with Jack), in the hope of retrieving the horn of the wounded unicorn, rescue its newly-kidnapped mate and also, as it turns out, Lili too. Darkness has fallen for Lili’s pureness, and the only way he believes she can love him back is if he corrupts her in the ways of evil.
Right from the very beginning, Legend takes the breath away with its beauty. The sets are an absolute miracle of detail. For the forest scenes, Scott originally wanted to film on location in California’s Yosemite National Park, but he just couldn’t get the light or the natural elements to play ball, so instead he decided to build an entire forest at Pinewood Studios 007 Stage, where he would be able to manipulate anything and everything to get the look he wanted. By installing mirrors at the back of the set, he could extend the depth of the forest, and by laying real branches on enormous plaster/Styrofoam trees, real plants and ferns amongst the artificial grass and real animals (including 300,000 birds!) to move freely through it all, he created an astonishing mix of artifice and reality that made the scene feel totally, utterly alive, both during the day and night. It’s not just the ‘outdoors’ that looks great – the cottage that Lili enters near the start is stunning, and the way daylight and later moonlight illuminates it is totally breathtaking. There’s a cave of treasures that’s bathed in golden light, ghastly, fiery dungeons filled with skeletons, kitchens where bodies are turned into meat for pies, and Darkness’ throne room with its enormous fireplace and chair which literally pulsates.
While it’s tempting to consider Legend as purely eye-candy, and in the truncated versions of the film that the world initially received, that kind of criticism was understandable (if harsh), it really is a fascinating tale of innocence vs sin, good vs evil, and of course, as is the way of fairy tales, the transition from childhood to adulthood. As teenage innocents, Jack and Lili commit what are considered by nature and others as sins. Jack breaks the secret of the unicorn’s presence – he may have done it ‘for love’, but he has let his heart lead him astray and ultimately put his desires above all else. As Gump puts it, how can he expect to ‘upset the order of the universe and not pay the price?’ Likewise, Lili is mesmerised by the sacred beauty of the unicorns, and by luring one out into the open, she exposes it to be attacked by the goblins. Together these two teens unwittingly set in motion the threat of a new age of darkness. Well, they and the actual bastard goblin who fires the poisonous dart, of course.
The unicorn sanctuary acts as a kind of Garden of Eden, the unicorns the sacred apple that must not be eaten. Unlike Adam and Eve though, both Lili and Jack have a chance to make things right. Yet by the film’s end, it’s not just a case of right over wrong and good over bad – it’s accepted that the world is a constant balancing act between the two. Darkness’ narration in the teaser trailer to Legend sums it up perfectly:
‘There is a balance to the universe. The struggle to maintain that balance is the stuff of legends. For there can be no good without evil. No love without hate. Life needs death. Innocence feeds lust. There can be no heaven without hell. No light without ME! I am…Darkness!’
Dark thoughts may be alien to the unicorns, but humans aren’t so simple. Can a world with humans in it exist without sin, without darkness? It’s in us all. Darkness himself says that it was Lili’s sin that trapped the unicorn. One of the goblins says that ‘beauty led the beast’, which is obviously a nod to the classic fairy tale, but also to the closing lines of King Kong, where it was the similarly judgmental ‘beauty killed the beast’ – but really, what was Lili’s sin? A simple desire to touch and be near beauty? ‘Where’s the harm in that?’, she quite understandably asks. She’s not bad at all. Just occasionally mischievous and a little reckless, as we all can be. Despite the protestations of certain characters, the film itself doesn’t consider her as bad, or shameful. Regardless, her ‘sin’, once committed, is Lili’s adult awakening – stricken with guilt over her actions, she intends to take responsibility and make right what has gone wrong. Indeed, she has agency, smarts and despite being, on the surface, the damsel in distress, she is ultimately the one who saves the day by tricking Darkness into thinking she wishes to join him, and is the one who frees the imprisoned unicorn.
Seduced by the forbidden, overcoming the loss of innocence, Legend is about growing up. ‘I learned something about myself’, Lili says – maybe it’s the awareness that good and evil exist in us all, and it’s all about maintaining that balance. When Darkness is consigned to oblivion, he says to Jack, at the last moment: ‘You think you have won? What is light without dark? What are you without me? I am a part of you all! We are brothers eternal!” He’s got a point. In another of Hjortsberg’s excellent lines of dialogue, he says to Lili: ‘We are all animals, my lady. Most of us are too afraid to see it’.
For critics and audiences won over by Tom Cruise’s irresistible breakout performance in 1983’s Risky Business, his turn as Jack was seen as a disappointment, a pretty face lost amongst the visuals. Admittedly, the most interesting dynamics occur between Lili and Darkness, but in retrospect, with Cruise still remaining one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, it’s actually quite refreshing to see him in such an ego-less turn; he’s almost Mowgli-like in his gently feral oneness with nature and animals. Mia Sara, a fine actress still best known for her engaging, cheeky performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, beautifully conveys the twin opposites of playful seducer (with Jack) and terrified seduced (with Darkness), most memorably in a stunning sequence where Lili, fleeing through the nocturnal mystery of Darkness’ lair, arrives in his throne room, in which a mysterious masked figure performs a dance for her, eventually taking her by the hand and then becoming one with her, changing her image all-over to represent her dark side, dressed in black. The battle for her soul has begun.
Black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch.
Tim Curry is, hands down, the most extraordinary screen demon of them all, and Rob Bottin’s full-body prosthetic design for him is the greatest make-up job ever created for an actor. Nothing has matched it. It’s during Darkness’ scenes that the film is at is most gripping and transcendent. Bottin felt disappointed by previous onscreen depictions of the devil, so this was a great opportunity, and he didn’t disappoint. When Darkness makes his proper entrance an hour into the film, the effect is absolutely astounding; it’s one of the great character introductions. With his massive hoof emerging from a mirror, and his enormous horns and terrifying presence towering over an appalled Lili, Curry is transformed into a living, breathing embodiment of pure mythological evil (thirteen feet tall including horns and hooves!), and yet it’s an evil that’s loaded with sexuality and erotic persuasion. His skin deep red, his muscles outrageous, his moves lithe and elegant; with a chin that looks like a vulgar, outstretched tongue and a voice that booms with the kind of intense, unforgettable power that Curry’s so damned good at, he’s impossible not to be hypnotised by. Frustrated and almost humbled by Lili’s presence, he purrs and seduces her, wanting her to embrace darkness, to live out her desires: ‘The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity’, he teases. Their psychological dance-off is the film’s most beguiling element, which comes to a crossroad when it seems as though Lili has turned bad by requesting to cut the unicorn’s throat. She’s lying, but Darkness’ ghastly laugh at that moment is pure, absolute wickedness, almost sexual in ecstatic relief.
Unfortunately, just like Blade Runner, Legend arrived in cinemas in a version that didn’t quite match the original vision of its director. Universal president Sid Sheinberg second-guessed that younger audiences wouldn’t take to the film. Additionally, Scott got paranoid after not-great early reactions, especially an instance of giggling from a presumably stoned member of the test audience – in haste, the movie was cut down and even re-scored. Eventually, two versions of Legend did the rounds, with the domestic US version the shortest and featuring a hastily-composed, more fashionable score by Tangerine Dream, and the international version a slightly longer cut that kept the original, tremendously lush Jerry Goldsmith score which, bizarrely, lifts a couple of cues from his earlier Psycho II soundtrack.
Given that Tangerine Dream had scored Cruise’s Risky Business a few years before, it made sense from a commercial standpoint to bring them in to add some contemporary sheen to this out-of-time adventure. And yet this is the thing – it’s easy to dismiss the idea of their replacement score as a shameless, soulless attempt to make a work of art more commercial, but the thing itself really is quite splendid, full of rich texture and dreamy atmosphere. Their collaboration of Yes’ Jon Anderson, ‘Loved by the Sun’, which scores the triumphant ending, is utterly beautiful too. However, Bryan Ferry’s end credits theme, the incongruous ‘Is Your Love Strong Enough?’, is one commercial step too far, and surely belongs on the B-side to ‘Slave to Love’, not a film like this! Yet even though the changes are minor and only add up to a few extra minutes, the international cut feels far fuller, if still incomplete. However, neither cut is preferable to the other: even though the international cut is more satisfying narratively, the domestic cut should not be dismissed outright. As well as including a triumphant shot of the unicorn’s horn being returned to its rightful place (curiously missing in the international cut), it has that amazing Tangerine Dream score.
Legend, in either version, was mostly rubbished by critics. To be fair, they were watching one of two frustratingly short edits. Thankfully, many years later, it was eventually released in a much-needed director’s cut, and in terms of narrative and character, it is absolutely the version to go for. It turns a flawed film into a near-perfect one. It’s the only version that really takes the time to smell the roses of this wonderful world. Even the bloomin’ unicorns get to have more personality in the longer version. If it wasn’t for how beautiful the Tangerine Dream score is in the domestic cut, I would wholeheartedly recommend the director’s cut above all other versions entirely.
Scott’s films never again reached for the skies as highly after this one. His next feature was a total change in approach and was the modern film he was always intending to make. 1987’s Someone to Watch Over Me was a blend of cop thriller and romantic drama. It looked immaculate, was dripping in style and had atmosphere to spare. Yet it was also a far more modest exercise in filmmaking, the work of a consummate professional rather than the otherworldly artist of yore. It’s a very good film, but that’s all it is, whereas Legend is the last classic of that time, long ago, when Ridley Scott was an artist beyond compare, a creator who had a vision and, with a team of remarkable talent, went to the limit to express it.